On 17 May, for the third time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the Narendra Modi administration extended India’s lockdown—one of the harshest across the world. For the third time, the Indian government did so without seeking scientific inputs from a national task force constituted to advise the central government on its pandemic response, according to multiple members of the team of scientists. There was a consensus among members we spoke to that the lockdown had failed to achieve its purpose due to the government’s failure to take crucial parallel measures, such as developing India’s testing capacity and medical infrastructure. Despite placing a 1.3 billion population under lockdown, India has recorded over a hundred thousand confirmed cases, crossing China’s COVID-19 numbers to become a new epicentre for the novel coronavirus in the Asia Pacific region.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the lockdown has failed,” an epidemiologist who is a member of the task force told us, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Social distancing, wearing masks, and hand hygiene works. Together, these measures reduce the rate of transmission. However, till date, there is no evidence that lockdowns can cut down transmission.” Several public-health experts we spoke to said the government failed to use the time to conduct comprehensive contact tracing, scale up testing, and prepare India’s medical infrastructure for the pandemic. “The rationale for lockdown was to buy time to prepare ourselves in terms of logistics, preparing our hospitals, preparing our manpower, preparing guidelines, standard operating procedures,” an expert in community medicine, who is consulting with the government on its pandemic response, said.
“Biggest issue with lockdown is that many national responses think of it as a main or only measure of control—it is not,” Dr Salil Panakadan, a regional adviser with UNAIDS—a United Nations programme to combat HIV—said, referring to the response by different countries. Panakadan is looking after the organisation’s COVID-19 response in the Asia Pacific region. “It is a component of an overall comprehensive strategy, which must use the time to prepare health systems, populations, and supply chains.”
A second member of the task force, who also requested not to be identified, spelt out the different ways in which the central government’s response to the pandemic had made the situation worse. He said that the centre had failed “in containing spread to multiple sites in the country, failure on political and administrative front in providing social services to people under lockdown and migrants, failure of risk communication and countering stigma.” The second member also condemned the “police high-handedness” and the “delays in contact tracing, unlike Kerala.”
The epidemiologist on the task force shared the same concerns. “It does not add any extra value other than ensuring forcible social distancing,” he told us, discussing the lockdown. “That has shown results in the first world, where population density is far less than a country like ours. It is of no use to place blame people, especially in cities where so many are homeless—where were you going to lockdown the homeless families? Around 20 percent of population in any big city lives in slums.” The lockdown itself, without other measures and policies to fight the pandemic, “hardly achieves anything,” the epidemiologist added.